against inevitability

These are examples of social theories that emphasize inevitability:

  • Classical Marxism: “[The bourgeoisie’s] fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” — Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto
  • Rational choice theory: What defines the tragedy of the commons is the “solemnity of the relentless working of things,” “the inevitableness of destiny,” and “the futility of escape” — Garret Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons” (quoting Alfred North Whitehead about tragedy)
  • Skepticism about Great Men: “But the mysterious forces that move humanity (mysterious because the laws of their motion are unknown to us) continued to operate. Though the surface of the sea of history seemed motionless, the movement of humanity went on as unceasingly as the flow of time. Various groups of people formed and dissolved, the coming formation and dissolution of kingdoms and displacement of peoples was in course of preparation.” –Tolstoy, War and Peace
  • Progressivism: “The current has set steadily in one direction: toward democratic forms” — John Dewey, The Public and its Problems
  • A small-d democratic version: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”–Margaret Mead (attributed)

One thing that unites the disparate authors in our canon of Civic Studies authors is a refusal to accept any of these forms of inevitability.

Elinor Ostrom was part of the rational choice tradition, but she argued that whether we succumb to collective action problems–including today’s peril of climate change–depends on how we organize ourselves. It is neither a tragedy nor a comedy but a “drama.” She found that bottom-up solutions sometimes worked, and their chances of working depending on whether the participants used smart practices.

Jürgen Habermas came out of the Frankfurt School, which had assumed that capitalism inevitably blocks free inquiry and emancipatory reason. He also read theorists like Dewey, for whom (at least in my interpretation) emancipation is inevitable. Habermas holds, instead, that how well we reason and deliberate depends on how we organize our public life, and we have a chance to improve it if we work hard and wisely.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King confronted people who were deeply skeptical of nonviolent resistance, as well as quietist religious believers who preferred to wait for providence to sort things out. Their constant refrain was that we have a chance to improve the world if we try. Social science confirms that civil resistance sometimes works–and more often than violence does–although it depends on how the resistance is organized. During the century after Gandhi’s youth, the record of civil resistance improved, as activists learned better tactics, but lately, its record has gotten worse due to the autocrats’ ability to learn from their experience.

A major 20th century debate was about the relative importance of structure versus agency. Is history driven by inevitable processes or by intentional human action? The answer to that empirical question is: Some of both. But a much better question is: How can we enhance the better forms of human agency? The role of theory is not to weigh the past impact of structure and agency but to make agency more important in the future.

See also: beyond civic pietyOstrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need and Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II).

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.